UPDATES & ANALYSIS

3.03

In a Wapello County case, Iowa Supreme Court parses settlement agreement language on ‘derelict’ vehicles

by Rox Laird | March 3, 2023

When Wapello County set out to remove what it considered “derelict” vehicles from a residential property, the owners sued. The suit was dropped after the owners and the County reached a settlement in which the owners agreed to do the removal themselves to the County’s “satisfaction.”

The word “satisfaction” became the focus of a lengthy legal journey ending at the Iowa Supreme Court.

When there was no action on the vehicle removal by the deadline in the settlement agreement, the County entered the property and removed 16 vehicles along with assorted materials that violated the county zoning ordinance. The owners went back to Wapello County District Court claiming the County’s action violated the settlement agreement.

The trial court granted summary judgment to the County. The plaintiffs’ appeal was transferred to the Iowa Court of Appeals, which reversed the District Court, and the case landed before the Iowa Supreme Court on the County’s application for further review.

The Iowa Supreme Court, in its decision in McNeal v. Wapello County handed down Feb. 3, concluded the question is whether a reasonable person in the county’s position would be satisfied that the removal of the derelict vehicles was done properly. By that measure, the Court held that the County prevails.

The decision was written by Justice Edward Mansfield and joined by all justices except Justice David May, who did not participate in the case. Justice Matthew McDermott filed a separate concurring opinion.

The “fighting issue” before the Court, Mansfield wrote, is, “What does it mean to say that ‘the removal of debris, derelict vehicles, and maintenance of the Property has not been completed to the satisfaction of the County’? Are vehicles derelict simply because the County said they were, or does an objective standard apply? And if an objective standard applies, how do we resolve this case?”

While the County does not have unfettered discretion to define what is meant by a “derelict” vehicle, the Court said, neither must a judge or jury define the term. Instead, it said the question is whether a “reasonable person” in the position of the County would be satisfied “with the McNeals’ removal of derelict vehicles, and whether the County’s response was reasonable.”

As for whether the County’s classification of the vehicles as derelict was objectively reasonable, Mansfield itemized some of what the County removed: “None of the vehicles had current licensure on them. Some of them lacked titles. A few lacked vehicle identification numbers (VINs). The McNeals concede that many (if not all) of them were inoperative. Some of them were being used for parts only.”

The decision referenced a photo introduced in the District Court showing a disabled car with broken windows, at least one wheel missing, and other damage. Mansfield posed the question: “Is that a derelict vehicle? ‘I know it when I see it,’ Justice Potter Stewart might have said,” an oft-quoted statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stewart in a 1964 pornography case.

In this case, the Iowa Supreme Court concluded that Woodbury County, like any reasonable person, would know a derelict vehicle when they see it, and acted reasonably in removing all 16 vehicles.

 

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February 2024 Opinion Roundup

The Iowa Supreme Court entered opinions in eighteen cases during February 2024. You can read Rox Laird’s analysis of Singh v. McDermott, Selden v. DMACC, and Senator Roby Smith et al. v. Iowa District Court for Polk County. The remaining opinions from February are summarized here.

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